Heretic that I am, I’m going to take an unpopular position: that the Democrats lost not because they were too bold, but because they weren’t bold enough. As all the “pundits” tell the Democrats (as they always do) to move ever-more-rightward, I’ll say, yet again, that moving rightward and wimp-ward is why they keep losing!
The strength of the Tea Party vote is more than a repudiation of Obama. It’s also a repudiation of the “mainstream” GOP (which was already so far to the right that people like Nelson Rockefeller or Lowell Weicker would have found it very uncomfortable).
The massive switch of independent voters, in particular, was, in short, a continuation of the 2008 Obama call for “change”: a loud cry that people didn’t feel they actually received the change they had voted for in 2008.
And this can be pinned squarely on the Democrats’ failure to make bold policy, and to be willing to tell the story of their success boldly. On health care, on climate change, on the economy…the Democrats whittled themselves down to half-measures. Where was the single-payer health care program that almost every other country in the world has adopted in some form (and why didn’t they position that as the boon to the business community that it is)? Where was the Marshall Plan-scale effort to get us off fossil and nuclear and into job-creating, carbon-slashing clean renewable energy? Where were the measures to hold Wall Street and the GW Bush administration accountable for the mess they made? And where were the visionary leaders who should have populated Obama’s Cabinet?
Despite a huge mandate for change, and a majority in both House and Senate, the Democrats refused to even listen to calls for massive structural reform, and then forgot all the marketing lessons they learned in the campaign and let the other side not just control but completely dominate the discourse—leaving the impression that they are a weak and ineffectual party of favors to special interests who can’t fix the economy or anything else. And failing on three crucial aspects of marketing: to remind people firstly of who got us into this mess, second, of the steps they did take to pull us out, and third, of the policy initiatives where change was actually achieved in the last two years.
Don’t apologize for your beliefs. Three out of the four most recent prior Democratic nominees–Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry–all crawled on their bellies with messages that basically said, “umm, I’m not really a liberal, I didn’t mean it, I’m soooo sorry!” And all three lost because doing that took the wind right out of their sails. Bill Clinton, who is not a liberal, didn’t play that game. Not surprisingly, he won. Obama never apologized, ignored the L-word, and didn’t even flinch when in the closing days, McCain revved it up and actually called him a socialist (traditionally, the kiss of death in US politics).
Monday evening, Rachel Maddow released a video highlighting Obama’s accomplishments. It’s a great video. The Democratic Party itself should have made something like it, six months ago, and worked to get it viral. Released by an outside journalist, twelve hours before the polls opened, it had no time to gather momentum.
Here in Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick wasn’t given much chance a year ago. But he ran a positive campaign focused on the slogan, “Optimism and Effort.” He highlighted his accomplishments over and over again, made a case that the work wasn’t done, and inspired audiences with a message of hope, economic recovery, and the rights of ordinary people. In other words, he used the exact strategies I’ve been advocating for decades that the Democrats use. Despite his somewhat centrist record, he was able to position himself as a change agent. I went to one of his rallies and went up to him afterward to thank him for being a sitting governor bold and hopeful enough to go out and make that kind of speech.
He did benefit from a third-party candidate who clearly drew votes from the colorless, bland GOP candidate. But still, he won, and by a larger margin than many pundits had predicted.